Hill House

Hill House 2015

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the upper part of Helensburgh, a small town on the Firth of Clyde, became populated with a series of grand, individually designed villas commissioned by rich businessmen who could afford to move out of Glasgow but still needed to live nearby for work. (Helensburgh Upper Railway Station, opened in 1894, helped to make this possible.)

Many of the houses were very traditional in nature, as I’ll show later, but publisher Walter Blackie was more visionary. He appointed Charles Rennie Mackintosh as his architect, resulting in Hill House (designed 1902), as seen in all its glory at the top of this post.

Not only was Mackintosh’s design innovative, he used innovative materials too. Scottish houses are often harled (roughcast) with lime, but Mackintosh chose to use a more modern material: cement. It was easier to work into the curves and crisp angles of his building, but there was a serious flaw – the Scottish weather. Traditional lime harling allows a building to breathe. If cement roughcast cracks, rain soaks in but cannot evaporate back out. This has caused a lifetime of damp and damage to the walls and interiors – according to the National Trust for Scotland which owns the house, it is “dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water.” NTS has decided to buy time by creating the Hill House Box.

Hill House Box 2019

This shelter, designed by architects Carmody Groarke, is made of steel mesh and will protect the house from up to 80% of rainfall. At the same time the wind can pass through, water can evaporate and, as the house dries out, plans can be made for its future conservation, a process which is likely to take up to 15 years.

We’ve made many visits to Hill House over the years. On our first visit to the Box we were impressed, not just with the boldness of the solution, but also with the way that NTS has ensured that the visitor misses nothing. In fact, you see Hill House as never before. Two walkways allow an incredible bird’s-eye view.

Inside is as beautiful as ever – the Blackie family could just have walked out a few minutes ago. Youngest daughter Agnes has left her bicycle, and Walter has obviously been busy in the cosy library, one of the few rooms without the classic Mackintosh touch.

Elsewhere, the interior design of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald is much in evidence. The pair worked closely together: Charles said “Margaret has genius, I have only talent”. The drawing room and Anna Blackie’s bedroom are particularly fine. You can also see, at the end of the gallery below, examples of both interior damage and stencilling restoration.

After touring the house we wandered outside for a while waiting for the next part of our visit.

At 1pm, one of the guides, the excellent Taylor, led a group of visitors a couple of blocks downhill to compare and contrast two other houses of similar vintage. These were Red Tower (William Leiper, 1898) and the White House (M. H. Baillie-Scott, 1899). Red Tower is traditionally Scottish Baronial in style. It spent some time as a Drug Rehabilitation Centre earlier this century, but has since been taken back into private hands and restored as a 14-bedroom dwelling-house, which is apparently occupied by only two people. Baillie-Scott’s building has more in common with Hill House – he also designed Blackwell in Cumbria, another house I love to visit which always reminds me of Mackintosh. Both The White House and Blackwell pre-dated Hill House, so who influenced whom?

I know from my heritage volunteering with Maryhill Burgh Halls that their architect also designed a house nearby, so I asked Taylor if she knew which one. She went off to get her plan and identified it for me – it was right next door. Cuilvona (Duncan McNaughtan, 1907) is a mock-Tudor villa which is barely visible from the road. However, part of the Hill House walkway looks right down on it, so after lunch (yes, Hill House has an excellent café in its new visitor centre) we headed back in to look. John took the photograph through the wire mesh which is why it’s less sharp.

I had photographed the plan, so we could also identify some of the other houses. Here are Morar House (at one time known as Drumadoon; Leiper, 1903), Ardluss (Leiper, 1900) and Dhuhill (I think – in which case, James Smith c. 1850). Having been empty for some years, after serving as a nursing home, Morar House ended up on the Buildings at Risk Register, but has recently been converted to flats.

There was still part of the afternoon left, so we looked at the map and plumped for a visit to Glenarn, a 10 acre private garden in the nearby village of Rhu, which is open in the summer months as part of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme.

This was a lovely day out. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Hill House Box, but I was very impressed with what NTS has done and I fervently hope that it leads them to a permanent solution for conserving Mackintosh’s masterpiece.

69 thoughts on “Hill House

  1. Joanne Sisco July 6, 2019 / 18:36

    This is a case of a box containing a big surprise. I love innovative solutions and this is clearly one of the them. At first glance, the box just looks like netted scaffolding, but what a treat inside!! To be able to explore a building from all angles is such a novelty!!


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter July 6, 2019 / 18:41

      They describe it as chain-mail rather than net, and it is just like that. You could even buy jewellery made from it in the shop (I resisted – I have way too many earrings already and only ever seen to wear the same few pairs!)


      • Joanne Sisco July 8, 2019 / 11:21

        I am such a sucker for jewelry. I likely would have bought some! … and yes, I have bazillions of pairs.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. susan@onesmallwalk July 4, 2019 / 16:28

    Anabel – what an enjoyable walk, and a surprising temporary fix for the aspirin-like condition of all those treasures in your country. Admirable 🙂


  3. Suzanne et Pierre July 1, 2019 / 13:41

    I hadn’t yet read your text when I looked at the pictures and recognized immediately the style of Mackintosh. Such lovely house. Great photos. (Suzanne)


  4. BeckyB July 1, 2019 / 08:11

    what a glorious and fascinating post . . . . .


  5. Retirement Reflections June 29, 2019 / 10:17

    I love all of the places that you visit and how you bring them alive for each of us.
    “My spouse has genius, I only have talent.” No lack of ego there! 🙂


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter June 29, 2019 / 10:41

      Thanks Donna. I repeat that Mackintosh sentence at every opportunity as Margaret Macdonald is less celebrated than her husband and so much of the art was hers. Even our First Minister, who is a genuinely cultured person, confessed a couple of years ago at an exhibition of Scottish women artists that she didn’t know Mackintosh’s wife was an artist in her own right.


  6. Jessica (Diverting Journeys) June 27, 2019 / 16:16

    I have to say that I generally prefer the traditional style of architecture to Hill House (except for the turret. Love a turret), but the box is very cool! Makes it seem almost like a dollhouse all encapsulated inside, albeit on a massive scale!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Green Global Trek June 27, 2019 / 10:03

    Fascinating ! Especially the method of preservation and the creativity in which it has been done while the building “heals” or “dries”. And what a gorgeous garden! Love the combination of interesting architecture and natural beauty. Lovely!



  8. Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor June 26, 2019 / 21:13

    What a creative way of preserving the Hill House. I love Mackintosh design. It always reminds me of Scotland when I see his pieces.


  9. bitaboutbritain June 26, 2019 / 10:39

    We should obviously make a point of diverting into Helensburgh instead of bombing past. I think there was a similar problem of damp – and a similar ingenious solution – at Rosslyn Chapel which, happily, seems to have done the trick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter June 26, 2019 / 16:15

      Yes, that’s right. Although I think this chain mail solution is a bit more sophisticated – technology has moved on, as it always does! Definitely worth a detour.


  10. ms6282 June 26, 2019 / 00:27

    Hill House has been on my list for a long time – it’s one of the few RM buildings I haven’t visited. I was thinking the box might ruin the visit but your comments reassure , although I’m sure it prevents taking in the view of the building as a whole. But they need to repair it to preserve it.
    I too love Blackwell and as for who influenced who, Baillie-Scott was the winner of the House for an Art Lover competition when RM’s design was commended but didn’t win as he didn’t completely stick to the rules (although I bet you already knew that!)


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter June 26, 2019 / 06:56

      Yes, you will not get the sort of view in my 2015 picture for a very long time, if ever. I was worried about the box too, but the walkways really add something which goes a long way to making up for the loss of the overall picture. I did know that about House for an Art Lover. I think Mackintosh was late submitting or something. He was never noted for following rules!

      Liked by 1 person

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